The viral image of a dead Syrian child captured the world’s attention for only a moment
[Editor’s note: Thisstorycontains disturbing images.]
Syria had been embroiled in more than three years of civil war when, in September 2015, the photo of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey was suddenly everywhere. Thousands of Syrians had already died in the conflict, with little attention paid to the issue. Now, the entire world was watching.
At least, for a little while.
A new study has found that this photo had a tremendous impact on the amount of attention given to the Syrian war, spurring interest in the conflict and generating a spike in donations. Unfortunately, that interest waned almost as quickly.
The study, from an international team from universities in Oregon, Sweden and Canada, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights how viral moments can make a difference, but that the attention can be short lived.
“The data that we present show that the world was basically asleep as the body count in the Syrian war rose steadily into the hundreds of thousands,” the authors of the study wrote in the paper’s abstract. “The iconic image of a young Syrian child, lying face-down on a beach, woke the world for a brief time, bringing much-needed attention to the war and the plight of its many victims. But this empathic response was short-lived.”
The photo being referenced is below:
Before the photo emerged, one nonprofit group estimated by that point in the war 320,000 people had already been killed with many more wounded. Refugees had begun to stream out of Syria, with many fleeing on overcrowded boats. Many of those boats never made it to their destination.
The tragedy unfolding in Syria generated plenty of headlines, but particularly in the social media era made little impact. That was until the photo emerged. Like stunning and tragic photos before, it was not the first picture to illustrate the situation, but something about it struck a chord, cutting through the media noise.
Suddenly, the thousands of Syrians who had been killed or were fleeing had a vivid and brutal image that illustrated just how bad the situation had become.
The chart below shows Google Trends data compiled by the study’s authors for searches on “Aylan,” “refugees” and “Syria.”
The photo ended up on newspapers, magazines, TVs, computers and smartphones around the world. Suddenly, the conflict in Syria was receiving attention, which led to donations for groups that were working to help Syrians in need.
Those donations followed a similar pattern to the Google searches.
Iconic photos throughout the 20th century helped to draw attention to conflicts and tragedies that had otherwise been under covered. A photo that has become known as “Napalm Girl” helped illustrate the horrors of the Vietnam War. A photo of a vulture near a starving child helped drive home the extreme hunger faced by people in Sudan.
The study does not compare the effects of those photos to that of the Syrian photo, though the modern media cycle would seem to be far faster than before.
The study’s authors note that while the photo was able to generate a sizable amount of attention and empathy, the lack of any definite solutions to the situation meant that the opportunity to take advantage of the temporary lift was squandered.
“Thus, empathy can create a strong motivation to act. But lacking a political solution to the underlying warfare in Syria, little progress was made in halting the killing or stemming the tide of refugees,” the study noted. “This failure to react can be viewed in part as a failure of society to provide compelling action alternatives once empathy is aroused.”